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The Obama Kenya speech that should have been repeated in Ethiopia

By Nahom Mola

When all is said and done, President Obama’s speech to the Kenyan people delivered at the Safaricom Arena on July 26th (Obama’s Nairobi speech), was perhaps the highlight of his historic trip to Kenya and Ethiopia, the two East African countries he visited back-to-back last month. Obama’s Kenya visit will be particularly long remembered, after the hype and hoopla of the historic state visit subsides in people’s memory, for two reasons: the ease with which he directly connected with his audience and appealed to their sense of dignity and humanity (classic Obama speaking from the heart) and the lucidity of the profound message he delivered to Kenyans, and by extension, to all Africans.

As the son of a Kenyan father who rose to the most powerful office on the planet and a former community organizer, the president perhaps felt a special responsibility to call a spade a spade and engage in frank discussion with Kenyans. He juxtaposed his aspirations for a united, prosperous, and democratic Kenya with his deep-seated fear of the latent tribal and ethnic tremor that rears its ugly head every now and then and implored Kenyans to eschew tribalism and ethnic-based politics. He urged them to instead coalesce around proven universal values of individual freedom and liberty. In that historic speech, Obama warned that Kenya is at a crossroads “Old tribal divisions and ethnic divisions can still be stirred up. I want to be very clear here — a politics that’s based solely on tribe and ethnicity is a politics that’s doomed to tear a country apartIt is a failure — a failure of imagination.” (Bold and italics mine).

That same speech, had it been made with a slight tweak in Ethiopia, it would not only have been timely but would have also deeply-resonated with the people of Ethiopia, the next stop in the president’s two-legged visit to East Africa. In fact, if you compare the risks of ethnic politics faced by the two nations, one could easily argue that Ethiopia is at a much more heightened stage of peril than Kenya, for the simple reason that, strange as it may seem, ethnic politics is enshrined in the constitution of Ethiopia, is the official policy of the government, and is trumpeted by its leaders as a panacea for retroactively correcting “misdeeds” of past generations. The results of this misguided policy are the many fissures manifest in the social and political fabric of today’s Ethiopia — apartheid-like ethnic enclaves where you are treated as a second class citizen if you come from the “wrong” ethnic group, unabashed economic and political domination by a few elites in the name of a minority ethnic group, and blatant ethnic persecution and displacements. Add to these the total closure of peaceful avenues for citizens to air their grievances and propose alternative governance models — the evisceration of the opposition and the recent laughable declaration of 100 percent election victory by the ruling party, religious persecution, and the shutdown of independent media and civil society — the picture becomes dire and calls for an urgent and bold intervention to stop the fissures and start the repair.

Think for a moment the history of our own Ethiopia where our forefathers courageously fought and defeated all kinds of outside invaders, while at the same time engaging in incessant fraternal infighting. According to Obama, such historical facts should be acknowledged but should not be exploited to divide and shackle people in perpetual fear, hatred, and conflict. Obama invoked a famous proverb in his speech that “we have not inherited this land from our forebears, we have borrowed it from our children” to make his point about each generation’s responsibility to strengthen ties across ethnic, tribal, and or religious divides and to pass to future generations a more tolerant, united, prosperous, and stronger nation.

Obama continued in his speech that “… the daily limitations – and sometimes humiliations — of colonialism – that’s recent history. The corruption and cronyism and tribalism that sometimes confront young nations – that’s recent history. ” You can draw parallels between the injustice past and present generations of Kenyans and Ethiopians have endured due to manipulation by their respective dominant ethnic elites. In Ethiopia’s case, Amhara elites in the past and Tigres at present. We should acknowledge this fact and draw lessons from it to build a more-just and equitable system for all, and not to divide and pit people against each other.

In his speech, Obama revealed the fear he harboured during the flare-up of Kenya’s election-related ethnic violence in 2009 “that it [Kenya] might split apart across those lines of tribe and ethnicity.” To everyone’s relief, Kenyans chose to stick together, because “the people of Kenya chose not to be defined by the hatred of the past.” Think of Meles’ insidious speech to his supporters invoking the loaded word “Interahamwe” during the 2005 contested elections, and think at the same time the reaction of the Ethiopian people, who in their infinite wisdom, chose to ignore that depraved call. Ethiopians share Obama’s fear of ethnic conflict in their own country every five years the country undergoes a pre-determined election exercise.

Given all this and the two countries rulers’ proclivity to pulling out the ethnic card to diffuse challenges to their power, it is baffling why Obama chose not to make that same speech in Ethiopia. Perhaps he made those same points to the leaders of Ethiopia behind closed doors. That we might never know. But considering the danger both countries face and the fact the president conducted back-to-back visits to the two countries, one hopes the irony of double standard is not lost on the president and his advisors. The double standard notwithstanding, President Obama’s articulation that “politics that’s based solely on tribe and ethnicity is a politics that’s doomed to tear a country apart” is a significant pronouncement with the potential to directly shape U.S. foreign policy engagement with Ethiopia and other countries afflicted by ethnic/tribal politics moving forward.

We should use every opportunity to point to President Obama’s double standard when it comes to addressing ethnic politics in Kenya and Ethiopia and never cease to remind the U.S. Government of its obligation to openly call for an end to ethnic-based politics in Ethiopia, since the ultimate consequence of such a policy, as Mr. Obama articulated, is assured conflict, fragmentation, and instability — outcomes not in the interest of anyone. Opposition groups and civil society and human rights organizations, should invoke this principled presidential stand to encourage the development and execution of a more pragmatic and appropriate approach by partner countries toward Ethiopia.  Ethiopians of all stripes should remain united and continue to strive and forge a peaceful path through reconciliation and harmony. As President Obama noted, pursuing ethnic/tribal politics is a vision devoid of imagination, and one might add of creativity. It should be totally rejected to the dustbins of history.

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